Prof. Emeritus Donna Duerk (Interview 2010)

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Coming from MIT, Cal Poly must have seemed remote and different. What did you expect from your new association with a polytechnic education?

Surprisingly, Cal Poly was not new and strange — it is very much like my undergraduate institution of N C State — in that it is very agricultural and has a great design education for its students. I had far more trouble adjusting to the quarter system than to the wonderful weather and beautiful countryside of Central California. I spent most of my time those first few years here focused on working very hard to become a better teacher and to learn the ropes. Remoteness was not an issue for me because I learned very quickly that cultural opportunities come to SLO in world-class packages, but are only available for one day instead of a week or more. So that part of my life was far richer than the life I had led as a graduate student with her nose in her papers all the time. The major difference between MIT and Cal Poly is that MIT attracts the best and the brightest from all over the world, not just from California. The atmosphere there was that you had to do your very best work just to survive. Here, the intellectual competition is not quite so stiff, although I know that our top students would thrive at MIT.

You are firmly anchored in the traditional values of architecture. Do you see changes in how students espouse those ideals?

That’s an interesting question. I don’t spend a lot of time examining my values. I just try to live them. The students are different with each studio, and I try to focus on each of them rather than come to some global conclusion about who they are. What I have noticed is that most students still want to do houses when they are second year. They also want to make some creative contribution to the world — whether from altruism or from the pride of seeing their own creations made real. The only trend in thinking I have noticed is that they are far more interested in sustainability than in prior years — but I think that is due to the shifts in National, University, College, and Faculty consciousness as well. I still feel the need to teach principles of composition and constructing drawings in analogue forms as a way of teaching students to see their world more clearly — instead of just through the computer. They need to be able to tell when the computer output is wrong.

Your interest into space without gravity is fascinating. How do you share this passion with your students?

Sputnik captured my imagination when I was a teenager and ever since I have thrived on the dream of living on the Moon. Since that is not to become a reality, I have become satisfied with teaching students about the joys of space travel and Moon habitation. I use the space-related problems I give to the students to have them focus on several principles that are useful in terrestrial architecture as well. One of the basic principles is how to make the best use of a small space by thinking three-dimensionally and by having multiple uses for the same space. Another principle is sustainability. On the Moon, people are completely self-contained and do not survive unless their habitats are sustainable. The ideas of water conservation, natural energy production, making the best use of small spaces, and producing one’s own food are quit useful in making terrestrial projects more sustainable.

Recent projects that your second year students are asked to tackle are about “inhabiting.” Describe to us the ideas you want your students to understand.

Inhabiting is all about place-making. It is about making a place serve human activities well and making it beautiful enough to be memorable. It is also about anthropometrics and using the human body to measure space and to design it to best fit its human use. For me, architecture is about people! It is about the legibility of the space — how easy it is to read the uses and circulation paths intended and otherwise afforded. It is about the views one has from inside the space to bring the beauty of the world inside. It is about human comfort — both physiological and psychological. Inhabiting is mostly about pushing architecture to its maximum ability to support or facilitate human endeavors as beautifully as possible.

At the end of this year, you will have ended your FERP. What accomplishments are you most proud of as an educator?

I am most proud of my connection to my students. I maintain a number of friendships from my early years of teaching to more recent years. I was a bit surprised to note that all of the current Architecture faculty who are alums are former students of mine. That makes me proud as well. One of the fellows even told me that he first thought of the possibility of teaching because of something I said to him. I am proud of the book, monograph, and papers I have written. And I am proud to have chaired the EDRA Conference so many years ago. The scholarships I have been able to endow here and at N C State are also a source of pride. When I was a poor, starving student I would never have imagined that my good fortune would allow me to assist young students of architecture the way I was assisted when I was a student.

Many of your hobbies seem extensions of the way you teach and think about architecture. Is this a fair assessment?

It is a more than fair assessment. I actually attribute my sense of happiness and well being to the fact that most things in my life are congruent and consistent. As I reflect on it, it seems that the major theme is sustainability, closely followed by a sense of beauty. I have been gardening since I was a child, but more recently, with my activities as a Master Gardener and a member of the CA Rare Fruit Growers and the Central Coast Cactus and Succulent Society, I have focused more and more on issues of sustainability. As a scuba diver, I have been impressed with the glorious beauty of the oceans, how fragile they are, and the need to protect them — by sustainable agriculture and gardening practices, of course. My interest in space architecture reinforces the ideas of sustainability and produces information on how to achieve some of the more technical aspects. At home, I produce many of my own salads and fruits. I work to use less power from the grid and to conserve water on site. I grow a lot of beautiful flowering plants as well to keep my eyes happy. So, the way I live, the hobbies I have, and the way I teach all fit neatly together most of the time.

Hypothetically, what questions had you wished that one ask you, and share with us your answer?

The question: What research interests do you wish to pursue after you totally retire? The answer: Given the above, I am most interested in working for clean water. The need is global — reference the floods in Pakistan, the cholera potential in Haiti, and the rising levels of salt water around the world. I am not sure that I can tackle the issue at the worldwide level, but I am interested in finding out what I can contribute at least at the local level. Getting to clean water involves agricultural and gardening practices as well as how natural gas is produced from shale (“fracked” in the vernacular). It may also involve desalination at a small scale. Whether I can make an impact upon practices that prevent contaminating water sources or upon practices that clean already contaminated water remains to be seen. It’s complicated! But it seems to be the best place to put my energy and intellectual power. I remain convinced that we will see water wars far more deadly than any oil wars to date. The controversy is already widespread among the interests of fishermen, Native Americans, farmers, and cities that draw upon the same clean water resource.

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